Spiel (Essen) v. Gen Con: Which convention is more fun?

Spiel (Essen) v. Gen Con: Which convention is more fun?

This was my first year at Spiel (which I refer to as “Essen” below), and it was also my first year at Gen Con.  A few of my friends have asked which convention is better, and I think that’s a fair question (no pun intended).  I thought it would be fun to put the question to the Opinionated Gamers: which one did you prefer?

Here are what I see as the pros and cons of each:

Essen Pros

  • Better games.  I preferred this year’s Essen releases to this year’s Gen Con releases, and I think that will be the case most years for me.  Essen has more of a focus on “Euro” games and the growing field of “hybrids,” whereas Gen Con felt more focused on “Ameritrash” (the hobby’s word, not mine).  If you like the latter, Gen Con might be more up your alley.
  • Bigger presence by board game publishers, with more elaborate booths.  I was impressed by the booths at Gen Con, but everything was magnified at Essen.
  • Bigger presence by board game designers.  I got to have extended conversations with several of my favorite game designers, which made for an awesome experience.
  • Cooler promos and freebies.  I felt like these were lacking at Gen Con.
  • Essen and the surrounding area is a far more interesting and fun place to visit than Indianapolis, Indiana.  (No offense intended to Indiana or Indianapolis; I used to call the former home, and the latter is a fine city.)
  • Essen has the atmosphere of a fair, complete with food, drink, and even carnival-style attractions.
  • The food in the Essen Messe beats the food at the Gen Con food trucks.
  • Seeing how the German game market differs from the American one was a really cool part of Essen: I enjoyed seeing German families out shopping for games together.  A European attending Gen Con would likely have a similar fun experience, though, seeing American geekdom.
  • You can generally get in a full play of a game at the demo table (especially if the game lasts an hour or less).  Gen Con pushes attendees through more quickly.  On the downside of this, it is harder to get a table at Essen.
  • The actual convention is reasonably priced (less than $30) and you don’t have to pay for events.  Plus, included in the cost of your ticket is transportation around the city.
  • I liked being able to shop at used game stands, and I made a large number of purchases from them.
  • I loved being able to play games with people of many different nationalities.  I played with some amazing people at Gen Con too, but it often felt familiar, since I was mostly playing with the same sort of people that attend my local game group.  At Essen I got to play games with people from many different countries and backgrounds, and that was awesome.

Essen Cons

  • The cost (at least for Americans) in economic terms.  This trip cost me about $1,000 more than Gen Con (excluding game purchases).  My plane ticket to Essen was $1,335, but the actual cost of attending Essen is lower: the hotels are (generally) cheaper, the actual convention is cheaper (only about $30 instead of $90), and you don’t have to pay for events.  The difference would have been even less if I couldn’t drive to Gen Con (I live in Missouri).  This does depend on the exchange rate, though: this year’s exchange rate was exceptionally favorable.
  • The cost (at least for Americans) in time.  I spent a day on either side of the convention just crossing the pond.
  • There is not much open gaming.  If I hadn’t stayed at a hotel that attracted a lot of gamers (or at least gone to such a hotel), my plays this week would have been cut in half.

Gen Con Pros

  • Gen Con is far more of an experience.  There are dozens of events (including some fun game tournaments).  Attendees dress up in elaborate costumes.  All of downtown Indianapolis gets in on the fun.  The Gen Con nightlife is a blast.
  • Speaking of which, the Gen Con convention center is open at night, which is a big advantage (even if the exhibition hall closes).  Essen really does completely shut down at 7:00.  I had a ton of fun playing Werewolf and similar games at night at Gen Con, but that wasn’t an option at Essen (or at least not as convenient of an option).
  • Gen Con has open gaming (and even then, it lacks compared to some other U.S. Conventions).  Sure, most of the tables are technically reserved, but most end up not being used, and I had no difficulty getting in games at Gen Con.  I can’t say the same about Essen.  Like I said, if it weren’t for going to the hotel I did, I wouldn’t have played many games.
  • Gen Con is far cheaper to attend (for Americans).  Also, getting to Indianapolis is convenient for us Americans.
  • Due to the production schedule in recent years, many of the biggest and best games (think Codenames or Mysterium) actually get released at Gen Con first and then get a wider release at Essen.  And some of the Essen releases could actually be previewed at Gen Con if you knew where to look (think 7 Wonders Duel).
  • I’m not into role playing, science fiction, or fantasy, but if you are, then Gen Con is probably going to be a ton of fun for you.  Gen Con has celebrity visits, panels, etc.  I don’t think that exists at Essen (at least not in English).

Gen Con Cons

  • There’s far less of a focus on board games, and in particular on the kind of games I like.  Additionally, there’s less of a presence of game publishers and game designers.
  • It is annoying how you have to pay for each event (even if the cost is modest).
  • It is more annoying how quickly the events fill up.  With Gen Con I felt the need to plan months in advance.  I made a few appointments with Essen, but I mostly attended with a list of games I was interested in and a list of designers I wanted to meet.
  • Booking a hotel at Gen Con is far more burdensome than it is for Essen.  You can get a reasonably close hotel at Essen up to a couple of weeks out, and there is public transportation if you need to stay further away.  That’s not true for Gen Con.  Also, the Gen Con hotels are very pricy.

All in all, I’d pick Essen over Gen Con.  I’m a pure board gamer: role playing, LARPs, and science fiction and fantasy have little appeal to me.  So it isn’t much of a surprise that I liked Essen better.  At Essen I felt like I was at the center of the board gaming universe, and that was awesome.  At Gen Con, I felt like board games were only about 60% of the experience, and the other 40% just wasn’t for me.

So was Essen worth the extra $1,000?  I think so, at least in my case.  I’m already wanting to make plans for next year!


Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers:

Greg S.:  I have attended the Spiel in Essen six times, but it has been several years since I’ve last attended.  The main reason, as you cite above, is the cost.  Flight prices have risen dramatically, and now cost about $1,500 or so.  Add hotel and food costs, and the price is over $2,000 before I have spent one dime on games.  As much fun as I have at the Spiel, I have serious reservations about spending that amount.

My experience with open gaming has been far different from Chris’.  Each night there were multiple hotels where folks would gather to play games.  Indeed, my tough choice was always having to decide between numerous options each night.

Boy, I sure do miss attending.

Matt C.:

I live near Indianapolis, and not Germany so I’ve attended GenCon since 2003 or so and have never been to Essen.  Gen Con has always been a role-playing gamer mecca.  Soon after Magic: the Gathering came into existence the convention was also a huge trading card game convention as well, hosting many of the world championships of the various card games.  Before the PAX convention(s) started, there was also quite a large videogame presence.

Currently, there is very little videogaming presence, but still a huge role-playing and TCG presence.  I suspect Gen Con is the largest role-playing convention out there.  I don’t know about TCGs, but I would not be surprised.

As boardgaming has gained popularity (especially here in the US), there has been a larger and larger presence at GenCon.  There were only a few big publishers (FFG, Mayfair, etc…) around with a small scattering of boardgame booths around the exhibit hall.  Now, a large portion of the exhibit hall booths are occupied by boardgame companies.   Several US-based companies also host public lecture/workshops where they announce upcoming games for the year as well as some Q&A.  Thus, if you really want the info on unannounced games you need to wait until Saturday – since most of these “reveals” happen Friday or Friday night.

Most booths have some sort of small demo area (often a single table per game manned by the designer or publisher), but the larger publishers also have areas set aside where players can play (nearly?) a full game.  Z-Man, FFG (they even set up appointments I think), Mayfair (a huge gaming area), Asmodee, and others.  Rio Grande isn’t in the exhibit hall but they rent out their own room filled with dozens of their games – they even have food catered a few times a day.

There are many demo areas outside the main exhibit hall, many of them dedicated to tournaments of various games.  Also in this area are smaller spaces where small publishers can set up full games of their offerings.  Some specific genres have large sections for play or tournaments, wargaming for instance, and a large train-game area as well.

Open boardgaming has traditionally been a problem (a few years back a friend even rented out a large boardroom at a local hotel to have their own open boardgaming area.)  People filled out any open tables and even open floor space to play their games (making some wider hallways slightly less wide.)  There was the “non-exhibit hall” tables I mentioned where one could grab a spare spot, but people might drop by to ask you to move if you’re occupying their demo game space.

However, recent years are much improved and there is now an open boardgame area stocked with a nice large library.  Purchasing a separate ticket/ribbon gets you all the boardgaming you want for the convention (Thurs-Sun.)  I’m not one to wander into the open boardgaming room,  but has still found quite a few opportunities to get in my boardgaming.  (I do admit that I try to “cover” the convention so opt for more overviews than full games in my visit.)

As the convention is local-ish, my expenses are not too high and I get an extremely good value for my money.  The downtown area is quite nice with hotels very near the convention center and (now with a “food truck alley”) there are reasonable areas nearby for food.  I drive in daily so parking is an issue (especially Saturday), so I need to be sure to arrive sufficiently early.

Gen Con does not have the huge presence of new games (particularly the “German” types), but often does have available some early release games that aren’t going to be out in stores until later in the fall.  Again, this is more common with US designers and companies.  Some of these “new” games were also previewed at Origins, and are finally released at GenCon.

Gen Con isn’t quite as big as Essen in numbers, and the RPG and TCG folks make a large population of the attendees. This means it is definitely smaller than Essen.  However, I would wager it has at least as much opportunity for boardgaming.  Its main problem would be the lack of those exclusive and exclusively new-release games European publishers seem to prefer to put out at Essen.

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